In a big, yellow warehouse on North 11th Street, Joshua Foo sits in front of his computer. Faces flash across the screen. Each has a slight grin, a raised eyebrow, or faint freckle, carefully captured for years to come.
Foo had a simple motive in capturing these photos of Omaha’s LGBTQ+ community: finding humanity.
“I wanted to kind of just get rid of the facade, the performative part of when we get in front of a camera,” said Foo, a photographer and videographer based in Omaha. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s great. I know that’s a part of you. But let’s really see where you are at.”
This project, a series of photos and videos captured during a free session on June 18, is part of his larger piece “As You Are,” a collaboration with the Union for Contemporary Arts and it’s summer-long Pride programming.
Foo’s first installment, a video portrait, will be screened inside the building until July 24. Selections from the free portrait session will be posted online, and on August 23, a third set of portraits will also be displayed on three billboards around Omaha.
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The Union for Contemporary Arts series “PRIDE 2021” will also feature “Queer Cliffnotes” series, which invites various queer BIPOC to host virtual discussions of literature by LGBTQ+ authors.
Programming around LGBTQ+ issues is not a new topic for the Union. Last year, the Union funded billboards around North Omaha featuring illustrations of LGBTQ+ Omahans of color in a project titled “We Thrive in Middle Spaces.” This year’s work emphasizes community engagement, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to limit in-person gatherings and safe celebrations of LGBTQ+ pride.
“We are human beings, and we will live or die by the strength of our community and how we relate to each other,” said Patrick Mainelli, Director of Communications for the Union. “Without that, [art] is just kind of an empty thing.”
The series also aims to challenge mainstream concepts of the LGBTQ+ community. Foo’s short film highlights three queer BIPOC – Eli Rigatuso, Sarah Rowe and Katera Brown – with reflections upon their own life journeys, a moving portrait that captures each individual’s strengths. Foo’s work rejects the idea that pain and loss define all LGBTQ+ experiences, something he sees often in TV and movies.
Foo also wants his art to start conversations about race, sexualitization and experiences many queer BIPOC experience in their journey toward coming out or connecting with their gender identity. Foo experienced racism and fetishization online after coming out. Rigatuso described similar issues of conflicting identities within his queer community.
“When you take a cis white gay man, he doesn’t understand his level of privilege,” Rigatuso said. “It’s not about me, it’s about who they are intrinsically within themselves, and how out of touch they are with knowledge and awareness that would make a difference.”
Though he comes from a commercial background, working for brands like Converse and Qdoba, Foo’s talent lies in giving subjects safe and open spaces. For Mary Lawson, Program Support Manager at the Union, participating in the portrait process was therapeutic.
“It felt like I was watching a master at work,” Lawson said. “He’s very thoughtful, intentional, and kind. And I don’t think a lot of people get to experience that type of relationship with photographers.”
By utilizing breathing techniques and music, Foo captured nearly fifty portraits during the free portrait sessions in June at the Union. The crowd ranged in ages and identities. People brought partners and family, waiting inside and outside of the art center for their turn in front of the camera. When they sat down, Foo started by asking participants to close their eyes and reflect upon loved ones or peaceful moments.
“That is a very vulnerable thing to do, to have your eyes closed, especially with a stranger who also has a camera,” Foo said. “Because they’re not thinking about it. I can watch that change happen and their hidden smile, the way their eyes move… [watching] someone because they found a place in their life that made them happy, where they felt that joy or thinking about their future with someone made me realize how special a smile is when it’s not forced.”
Foo often thinks about what it means to bring people into a present state of mind in order to capture them “as they are.” Foo brings his own experiences with insecurity, faith and isolation to each image. The process is as healing for him as it is for the participants.
“That day I just felt a massive drop,” Foo said. “That burden just went away. And I was like how beautiful are people? How wonderful is our world?”
For Rigatuso, the project helped capture a specific moment in his life. In 2015, Rigatuso came out as transmasculine two-spirit, a Native term that identifies with both masculine and feminine spirits. He asked Foo to document his transition beginning that year, including his experiences with top surgery. After losing his mother and battling COVID-19 in 2020, this latest project is another documentation of a difficult year for Rigatuso, but also a reminder about the importance of being fully present.
“That’s what the project is, right? ‘As you are,’ not about the wishing, wondering, hoping, or returning back to a point in life when maybe you were happier with yourself. There’s nowhere to get,” Rigatuso said. “And there’s not a whole lot that can be changed in a moment. I think the project itself is beautiful because it’s being in the inquiry of, ‘What is it that keeps you from loving yourself fully and completely, as you are?’”
This story was corrected at noon on Thursday, July 8. A previous version of the story misquoted Mary Lawson saying that watching Joshua Foo was like watching a “pastor at work.” The correct quote is “master at work.”
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